06/1/15

World Cup Boycott: “It Doesn’t Smell Good”

6508874-3x2-700x467

“I am not certain, but it doesn’t smell good,” Sepp Blatter opined.

It was a particularly astute observation. Only, Blatter wasn’t referring to the skulduggery that has landed Fifa in the eye of its most turbulent storm during his 17-year tenure as president. Instead, he was questioning the timing of the arrest of seven Fifa officials on the eve of the federations congress in Zurich. The arrests were part of an indictment led by the United States Department of Justice in which 14 individuals are under investigation for allegedly accepting bribes and kickbacks estimated at more than $150m over a 24-year period. Swiss federal prosecutors have also launched a criminal investigation into the awards of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments to Russia and Qatar.

Blatter told Swiss television station, RTS, that he suspected the arrests were an attempt to “interfere with the congress” at which he had been re-elected for a fifth term as Fifa president.

“No one is going to tell me that it was a simple coincidence, this American attack two days before the elections of Fifa,”

The 79-year-old continued “Why would I step down? That would mean I recognise that I did wrong. I fought for the last three or four years against all the corruption.”

US attorney general, Loretta Lynch, had said corruption in football was “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted”, yet in spite of this damming assessment, and widespread calls for Blatter’s resignation, his chutzpah was unwavering. “I am the president of everybody, I am the president of the whole Fifa” he triumphed, as obdurate in victory as he was in the face of adversity.

It is worth remembering plenty were happy to see the Swiss football administrator return to office. Blatter holds a strong base of support within many Football Associations outside Europe and North America. As this Bloomberg report details, his work directing power and funds away from Europe to the smaller and poorer countries, has ensured that while Blatter is regarded by many in the West as a cartoon villain, to the rest of the footballing world he is a saint.

Nevertheless, to those calling for reform and hoping that the arrests in Zurich would pave the way for the dawn of a new Blatter-free era, the 79-year-old’s re-election was disheartening. Particularly for FIFA’s most vocal critic, UEFA. Before the election, UEFA president Michel Platini had urged Blatter to resign, refusing to rule out the possibility of European teams boycotting the World Cup.

UEFA’s pre-election gambit aimed at swaying votes in favour of Blatter’s opponent, Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein, has led them into a cul de sac, and Platini has since made it clear that he does not want a World Cup Boycott. That said, he remains under pressure, with calls for such an action having strengthened since Blatter’s re-election. England’s Football Association chairman, Greg Dyke, has been particularity vocal in pledging enthusiastic support, claiming that a boycott would need to involve “10 large countries” to have an impact.

CGVWcYSWQAAWA1u

Dyke (left) said Platini (right) must unite Europe in a boycott 

Speaking on BBC Radio 5 live’s sport week, Dyke said “There would certainly be us, there would certainly be the Dutch, there would certainly be the Germans who have been demanding change. The FA chairman also believes that most South American countries opposed Blatter in the election, but admitted “They [Fifa] would only take serious action if there’s enough [opposition willing to act].”

Danish Uefa ExCo member Allan Hansen is also said to be of a similar mindset and has proposed to stage a new competition featuring sides from Europe and South America. In reality however, there are no guarantees a boycott would achieve any tangible reform in a hurry.

Blatter has demonstrated his intransigence knows no bounds. The man himself said he intends to “leave through the front door and leave with a clean house.” After four terms in office, he is not about to relinquish power, at least not without a long fight.

In addition, Fifa’s World Cup qualifying draw is due to be held on July 25 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Despite the fulminations of Dyke and British politicians, it is hard to envisage circumstances in which significant numbers agree to withdraw their participation from the qualifying draw, especially in a time-scale of just under two months. Then of course their is the risk of missing out on the financial windfall that competing in the World Cup and its associated sponsorship brings.

On Saturday June 6, UEFA will meet in Berlin to discuss their next step. Talks of a boycott will be high on the agenda however it will not be a united ship. Spain, France and of course Russia are three of the 18 European countries who were said to have opposed UEFA’s reform mandate, voting for Sepp Blatter.

Minus the backing of UEFA president Michel Platini and with no guarantees that Europe’s pro-reformers can rely on the support of the South American contingent, the boycott campaign could be derailed before it’s even truly in motion. For example, could England rely on the backing of Argentina given the history of fraught diplomatic relations between the two? And that is where the real problem lies – in geo-politics.

With so many stakeholders involved, what is the true purpose of this boycott?

On face value, a UEFA-led protest against FIFA does not appear to be grounded in political pragmatism but rather moral objection. It would be propagated as a boycott against the unscrupulous and corruptive malpractices of Fifa. A means of enacting much needed change and jettisoning Sepp Blatter. However, would such a protest also be based upon the supposition that Russia are a guilty party in the chicanery of the bidding process. It could be a diplomatic minefield.

Some circles have described a World Cup boycott as “Soccer’s nuclear option”, a sure fire way to foment political tensions. Following the arrest of Fifa officials, Russian president Vladimir Putin was quick to wade into the debate, accusing the US of meddling outside its jurisdiction.

“It’s another clear attempt by the USA to spread its jurisdiction to other states. And I have no doubt – it’s a clear attempt not to allow Mr Blatter to be re-elected as president of Fifa, which is a great violation of the operating principles of international organisations.” 

Since his re-election, Sepp Blatter has also launched diatribes at his detractors. The Fifa president highlighted that both England and the US had lost their bids for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively, claiming that, the attempt to unseat him was led by a spiteful media campaign in both countries.

RUSSIA/

Both are examples of the shrewd defence adopted by Putin and Blatter. In effect they are playing the role of spin doctors. It is no secret that political relations between Russia and the West have reached their most fractious since the Cold War years. Blatter’s line portrays the US and England as vindictive and irrational, willing to use all manner of subterfuge to prevent Russia and Qatar from holding a World Cup, in turn wresting the event for themselves. Putin is beating a similar drum. Ratcheting up an anti-imperialist rhetoric, suggesting that these attempts to destabilise Fifa and the World Cup are political revanchism, hidden under the guise of anti-corruption.

To some, his line of arguement will resonate. Especially given that calls to boycott the 2018 Russian world cup — as a means of protest against their role in the Ukrainian conflict — have already circulated within Western media and politicians. Only recently, 13 bipartisan US senators wrote to Blatter encouraging him to pull the plug on Russia 2018. Last year, the former deputy Prime Minister of Britain, Nick Clegg, affirmed that a boycott would be a “very potent political and symbolic action”, words that undoubtedly contributed to his inclusion on Russia’s blacklist.

The dangers of a politically charged boycott against Russia are well documented and UEFA will be anxious to distance themselves from such allegations. Unfortunately for Dyke and UEFA however, any withdrawal from the 2018 Russian World Cup would invariably be framed as such. In fact, the significant contribution of British and American politicians in particular, might prove detrimental to the legitimacy of a ‘moral’ boycott or the creation of a ‘Clean Cup’ – a separate competition designed for boycotting nations.

Let us, just for a minute, remove ourselves from our Western bubble. Were the 2018 and 2022 World Cup due to be held in England and the US, would there be the same level of public outrage regarding Fifa’s latest shenanigans? Would we be calling for reform with the same rancour? It all appears a little disingenuous.

Of course, many will argue that the corruption and opacity that we seek to expunge are the only reason the World Cups went to Russia and Qatar. Indeed, a boycott of the Qatari World Cup on humanitarian grounds is well founded given the tragic death of around 1,200 migrant workers, and the continuation of the oppressive Khafala employment system.

There is no doubt Fifa has become a kleptocracy in desperate need of radical rehabilitation. But the problem is, until the Swiss and US prosecutors place key figures behind bars and provide concrete evidence of bribery and corruption, the ground upon which an ‘ethical’ boycott of Russia 2018 would stand, remains shaky.

Admittedly, the indictments and investigations will likely take years to bear fruit. And in this instance, the phrase innocent until proven guilty might be worth heeding. Without robust evidence of Russian wrongdoing in the bidding process, a World Cup boycott could have far-reaching, geo-political consequences. The move would certainly scupper any progress that has been made in reaching a détente with Russia. In terms of the footballing community, it would also create disillusion and frustration among the players and fans of boycotting countries.

Therefore, such talks are neither prudent nor timely. Fifa needs a makeover, but at this moment in time, a boycott would cause more problems than it would solve.

@LH_Ramon25

03/6/15

Russia 2018: Could the World Cup be Boycotted?

russia-world-cup-logo-014-1050x630

This article is published in full on Futbolgrad. You can also follow them (@Futbolgradliveand their owner (@homosovieticus) on twitter.

 

09/12/14

Political Football: A Force for Good

Russian President Vladimir Putin plays w

“To be honest I was nervous about coming to summer school in England because of this F****** political situation in Russia.  I wasn’t sure I would make friends but I had no problems and everyone was very friendly.”

It was intriguing to hear the insight of this Russian teenager while working at a British international summer school. The student had arrived in England with preconceptions. He was well aware of deteriorating diplomatic relations after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and believed that forging new friendships might prove difficult.

His situation was thought provoking. The rise in nationalism and political tensions across the world mean sport is faced with a similar conundrum. Prior to the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, several English athletes approached Team England asking for guidance on how to respond to heckling from a partisan crowd. With the Scottish referendum on independence just weeks away there were fears that Scottish nationalists would use the games to voice animosity to the ‘Auld Enemy’. A spokesman for the Glasgow 2014 games reassured Team England that such an event would not materialise. “While friendly rivalries will exist between athletes on the field of play, we look forward to Scottish crowds expressing their passion for world-class sport in a family-friendly atmosphere.” Indeed the English athletes received a warm welcome but such security concerns are increasingly salient.

From the most egregious example of the murder of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team by Palestinian Nationalists at the Munich 1972 Olympics, to the political shenanigans surrounding the Olympic boycotts of the Cold War era, athletes’ apprehensions regarding their security are not misplaced. Such overt political statements are inimical to sport’s integrity as well as security.

Ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics there were real concerns regarding the safety of gay and transgender athletes, spectators and campaigners after the Russian government passed a law which criminalised support for ‘non-traditional’ relationships. During preparations for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, England manager, Roy Hodgson, expressed his concerns for the safety of both fans and players after violent protests had marred the Confederations Cup a year earlier. In 2012, ahead of the Euros in Poland and Ukraine, the British Foreign Office and ex-England defender, Sol Campbell, advised fans of a different ethnicity to stay at home because of entrenched racism and violence. When asked on a Panorama documentary – Euro 2012 Stadiums of hate – whether fans should travel to Poland and Ukraine, Campbell replied “Stay at home and watch it on TV…Don’t even risk it…you could end up coming back in a coffin.”

This sense of insecurity is bound to have a knock-on effect. The family of England footballer, Theo Walcott, decided against travelling to Euro 2012 after heeding the warning of Campbell and others. Walcott’s brother, Ashley, tweeted:

“Unfortunately my dad n i have taken the decision not to travel to the Ukraine because of the fear of possible racist attacks and confrontations.

 ‘Something’s aren’t worth risking but begs the question why hold a competition of this magnitude in a place that cannot police itself for foreigners of any creed to feel safe.”

Furthermore, is it possible for athletes to give their best performances in such hostile environments? Some of the responsibility lies with international governing bodies and their decision making processes when choosing venues to host major sporting events. That said with the proliferation of nationalist sentiments across Europe, it is likely that new cultural, social and political tensions will erupt in host nations. Following the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 back in July, Russia once again came under intense scrutiny with politicians – notably the UK’s deputy leader Nick Clegg – calling for FIFA to axe Russia as the hosts of the 2018 World Cup. “…You can’t have this – the beautiful game marred by the ugly aggression of Russia on the Russian Ukrainian border.” Clegg declared.

A World Cup in Russia could certainly stir feelings of tension and apprehension among those involved, especially if Ukraine were to qualify. However as David McArdle (co-founder of Futbolgrad) argues, stripping Russia of the World Cup would further isolate an already isolationist country and would also act to strengthen Putin’s rhetoric against the West. This is the crux of the debate. It’s yet another illustration of the old canard that politics and sport should be kept apart. This is a beautiful but romantic ideal. Sport and politics are inseparable as demonstrated in FIFA’s belief that rather than boycotting Russia 2018, the tournament can be used as a “force for good.” A political statement if ever there was one. What FIFA are backhandedly suggesting is that football should be used as a political tool. Thus rather than pretending there is no ‘political football’, the solution lies in tackling the problem head on. Shaun McCarthy, ICSS Director of Research and Knowledge Gathering, has suggested that the most prudent way forward involves forging some form of convention that protects sport from corrosive aspects of politicisation.

Event organisers, national and international governing bodies must attempt to seize the opportunity to use sport to bridge divisions. As with the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, it must be a priority to ensure that all those visiting the 2018 World Cup in Russia feel confident that the utmost is being done to uphold the integrity of the sport but also the security and well-being of all those involved. Let’s stop pretending we can keep sport free from politics and rather focus on how we can harness a positive relationship between the two.

03/25/14

Ferenc Puskas: The Football Star That Awoke a Nation.

Ferenc-Puskas-007

(Ferenc Puskas 1927 – 2006. Photo from www.theguardian.com )

Cristiano Ronaldo is set to leave yet another indelible mark on the history of Real Madrid. With 240 competitive goals to his name, he sits just two behind ex-Galactico, Ferenc Puskas, who is fourth in the Los Blancos all time scoring charts. This puts the Portuguese phenomenon on the brink of surpassing yet another landmark in his decorated career.

However while the 2013 Ballon d’or winner will exceed Puskas’s achievements within the realms of football, the Hungarian’s exploits beyond the field of play transcend any goal scoring honours. In light of events in Ukraine the story of this revolutionary footballer is worth re-visiting.

Born in 1927, Puskas is Hungarian footballs greatest exponent. Short and stocky of build, the striker was prolific at both club and international level. For Hungary, he scored 83 goals in 84 appearances and in 1954 he led his nation to a World Cup final, narrowly losing 3-2 to the might of West Germany. Puskas was in footballing terms, light years ahead, capable of producing brilliance others could barely fathom let alone replicate. However while many marvelled at his bewitching left-foot, the powers in his own country saw his ingenuity as a problem.

Having been occupied by Germany and then Russia, Hungary had endured times of significant hardship during World War Two. Under the ‘iron fist’ of the Soviet Union the country’s new hard-line apparatchik, Matyas Rakosi, had implemented a state dictatorship rivalling that of his comrade Joseph Stalin. Freedom of speech was non-existent. Thousands of Hungarians were sent to camps and prisons. Like so many other Communist states, sport was used as an ideological battleground. Football became both a vehicle of solidarity and one with which to challenge the West.

But in a political system which espoused collectivism, Puskas was a free spirit. He played for a team that was the antithesis of the martinet regime they represented. The ‘Marvellous Magyars’, an epithet you would hardly associate with a Communist dictatorship.

In 1953, on the 25th of November – led by their virtuoso captain – the Magyars travelled to Wembley unbeaten in three years. However facing England was a different proposition. The English were indomitable at their prestigious home and football remained a proud bulwark of a diminishing British Empire. This was a clash of two footballing greats with contrasting ideologies. England’s Capitalist Imperialism vs. Hungary’s Communism. Gusztav Sebes the Hungarian coach (and member of the Communist government) re-affirmed this:

“The bitter struggle between capitalism and communism is fought out not only between our societies, but also on the pitch.

Captains Ferenc Puskas and Billy Wright lead their teams out at Wembley Stadium back in 1953.

Left Hungary captain Ferenc Puskas, right England captain Billy Wright, leading their teams out at Wembley Stadium back in 1953.

Hungary triumphed sweeping England aside 6-3. Puskas scored two, including his famous – drag back goal – which screamed individuality.

A year later the two sides met again, this time at the newly built Nepstadion in Budapest. Hungary eviscerated England 7-1, Puskas again scoring two. The Hungarian government attempted to bill these successes as a triumph of the Communist system. Yet the performances had been down to the sprezzatura of players like Puskas who defied convention. Football allowed Puskas to do things exactly the way he wanted.

That same year the man nicknamed the “Booming Cannon” led his team to a World Cup final. However the disappointment of losing to their ideological rivals West Germany was too much to bear, both for the Hungarian public and Rakosi. The disbelieving mob poured onto the streets venting their anger at the draconian regime. The protests became a prelude for the 1956 Hungarian revolution.

Rakosi on the other hand took matters into his own hands and found his scapegoat in the shape of Hungarian goalkeeper, Gyula Grosics. Grosics was detained and charged with spying however the case fell through due to a lack of evidence.

Puskas would experience similar treatment. After Hungary lost to Czechoslovakia the national football association banned him for “laziness on the pitch.” However the regime needed its sporting heroes and he was pardoned just a couple of months later.

Hungary’s triumphs on the field and the exploits of their captain created a new sense of national identity. The team’s success helped the country open their eyes to the possibility of independence from their Soviet occupiers. According to Hungarian writer Peter Esterhazy, the success of the Magyars can be seen as a symbol of the 1956 rebellion. In a BBC article about Hungary’s triumph at Wembley, the writer claims Puskas became “the hero of a fairy-tale, who triumphs where ordinary men cannot.”

In 1956 there was a nationwide insurrection. At the time Puskas’s club side –  Budapest Honved – were in Spain for a European Cup game. The Hungarian football federation attempted to prevent the match going ahead however Puskas was defiant, announcing the team no longer recognised the federation’s authority. Furthermore he openly voiced support for the revolution and defected to Spain.

Öcsi

Puskas at Real Madrid

A Communist athlete had taken a stand against a government that had tried to stymie his individuality. The Soviets sent in the tanks and the uprising was brutally crushed. Puskas became a pariah but he began a new chapter at Real Madrid. Fearing for his life, he did not return to Hungary until the fall of Communism in Europe. In 2006 he passed away in Budapest.

But what significance does this story hold today? The 1956 Revolution was during the height of the Cold War era. The Hungarian insurgents had hoped that the West would intervene but help was not forthcoming. Recently Ukraine was plunged into turmoil after a rebellion against their Russian-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Russian troops have since flooded into Crimea in an attempt to annex the Ukrainian territory. The majority of Crimean’s have voted in favour of re-joining Russia but the European Union, the U.S. and Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, have denounced the referendum. Some have warned we are teetering on the edge of a new Cold War.

At the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Paralympic’s, Ukraine pointedly sent out just one athlete as their flag-bearer to protest against Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Two other Ukrainian athletes covered their medals on the podium in a silent protest. The situation resonates with historic events in Hungary. Then as now, athletes used sport as a medium to express themselves. Thus the story of the Marvellous Magyars and Ferenc Puskas could not be more relevant.

Regarded as one of the greatest European footballers of all time, Puskas was also a revolutionary. In a country torn apart by a deep political schism, he was a figure whose footballing achievements helped people forge a new identity. Puskas awoke a nation to the possibility of change.

Ferenc Puskas – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJYXvqenhVs

02/7/14

Random Rambles Part I: Bayern’s Trendsetters and Sochi Grievances

So Nicholas Anelka is awaiting the result of his appeal against the FA’s decision to ban him for his quenelle gesture, Brazilian protesters are still threatening to crash this summer’s world cup fiesta, Bayern Munich fans demonstrated a forward thinking approach to homosexuality in football and the Sochi Winter Olympics are upon us and the maelstrom surrounding the games only seems to be worsening. You can add stray dogs and journalists to the list of groups who feel a sense of injustice.

Over the next few days I will be posting my thoughts on the aforementioned issues starting with Bayern’s forward thinking fans and Sochi’s growing list of grievances.

“Football is everything, including gay”

As I have frequently mentioned football has an omnipotence to mobilise change and last Sunday’s game between Bayern Munich and Eintracht Frankfurt demonstrated a refreshing facet of this. During the match the supporters of Bayern Munich unveiled a banner that read “Fußball ist alles, auch schwul” (Football is everything, including gay). Football clubs often involve themselves in campaigns tackling social discrimination, whether it be racism, sexism or homosexuality however what was so refreshing about this incident was seeing the fans take the initiative.

Bayern Munich fans unveil banner reading "Football is everything including gay" (Photo from http://suedkurve-muenchen.org/wp-content/gallery/fc-bayern-eintracht-frankfurt-02-02-2014/30.jpg%5D)

Bayern Munich fans unveil banner reading “Football is everything including gay” (Photo from http://suedkurve-muenchen.org/wp-content/gallery/fc-bayern-eintracht-frankfurt-02-02-2014/30.jpg%5D)

At times maligned and frowned upon, some football supporters (especially the more stalwart and passionate elements) have come in for criticism regarding their behavior and attitudes towards race, gender and sexuality. This is often justified and on occasions discrimination has plagued the stands of football stadia. Yet given the power and sway some of these fan groups hold, if they can transmit forward thinking and positive ideals to a global audience then the social significance of this should not be underestimated.

The Bavarian club’s supporters message was simple and hopefully it takes hold across the world. Just like anything, your sexuality should not be an issue and recently the archaic dogmas surrounding homosexuality within football are being challenged. From Robbie Rogers being an openly gay player in the MLS, to Thomas Hitzlsperger coming out and becoming the highest profile name to talk about his sexuality within football, the Bayern banner constitutes another step forward. There is a long journey ahead before we can render the game so many of us hold dear as all-inclusive but recent events represent progress.

It is worth noting the Bayern supporters also organised an impressive choreography dedicated to their former president Kurt Landauer, a Jew who was persecuted during the Nazi regime. So hats off to the supporters of Bayern Munich for jettisoning the old and exhibiting a forward thinking approach. Lets hope others take heed.

The grievances pile up at the Sochi Olympics.

Just a line on the Sochi Winter Olympics, which are now officially under way. Vladimir Putin and the Russian government could do with taking a leaf out of the Bayern supporters books.

The Olympics is a celebration of ‘sporting civility’ which includes such principles as ‘democracy, internationalism, equal rights and civic education’. That the Winter Games are being held in Russia, a country which in 2013 signed a statute criminalising support for ‘non-traditional’ relationships’ is questionable to say the least. Although the Russian government have insisted the law doesn’t forbid homosexuality, but merely prevents dissemination of gay ‘propaganda’ among those under eighteen, the issue has become a hot bed of controversy.

LBGT supporters take to the streets to protests against the Sochi Olympics. (Photo from www.businessweek.com)

LBGT supporters take to the streets to protests against the Sochi Olympics. (Photo from www.businessweek.com)

Gay and liberal activists across the world have expressed their outrage at this obsolete law, which if breached can incur penalties from fines to jail sentences and for foreigners even deportation. More worryingly the president of the Russian Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Sports Federation, Konstantin Yablotsiky, has claimed that the law has to an extent legalised neo-Fascist anti-gay groups to become more active, with violent attacks on LGBT protesters a common occurrence.

The astronomical cost of the games (the most expensive in history) has also led to widespread discontent among Sochi residents and the allegations of corruption and environmental damage aimed at those who constructed the Olympic village has further damaged the hosts reputation before the games have even begun. Furthermore there remains a major concern over security at the Olympics with the threat of terrorist attacks ever-present. Add this to the latest developments which has seen a mass culling of stray dogs and journalists having been left without suitable accommodation and it becomes hard to make one water tight case for why Sochi should be hosting an Olympic games.

The ignominious law regarding gay rights and the numerous blunders cannot be readily altered. But sport can act as a catalyst for change and this may be the one saving grace. Using the words of New Zealander Blake Skejellerup, a gay speed skater who came out after competing at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics:

“Sochi gives us an opportunity to highlight Russia’s anti-gay propaganda laws and say: this is wrong. Don’t underestimate how powerful that could be.”

Unfortunately Skejellerup narrowly missed out on qualification for Sochi however he is right, if anything at all the 2014 Winter Olympics constitute a possibility for progress, not just in Russia, but across the globe.